It doesn’t matter if you experience Portland streets as a pedestrian, bicyclist, transit rider, or driver: One shared reality for all these commute modes is that too many of our streets are unpleasant, uncomfortable, and downright unsafe. In fact, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) estimates that Portland roads need about $2 billion worth of repairs.
Making matters worse is the fact that until 2016, the City of Portland never had a dedicated fund for street improvements. That changed after Portland voters approved a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax in the May 2016 election, despite fierce opposition from the fuel and trucking industries. Over the last four years, that tax has raised $76 million to help fill potholes, make crosswalks safer, install new sidewalks and street lights, and fund other repairs and improvements through PBOT’s Fixing Our Streets program.
If you need a reminder of just how crucial these road improvements are, look to 2019’s sobering data: At least 49 people died in Portland traffic collisions last year, the highest number since 1997. Those lost lives also made clear that while the projects funded so far by the gas tax are sorely needed, they’re also just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to renewing the gas tax, we’d like to see the city treat traffic fatalities as the public safety crisis they are, and look for new revenue streams to help protect everyone who uses Portland roads—particularly bikers, pedestrians, and transit riders, all populations where economically disadvantaged people are over-represented.
The city needs a lot more than just $76 million over the next four years if it wants to make Portland’s transportation system truly safe and equitable. But something is better than nothing, and each and every safety project PBOT completes thanks to taxes might help save a life. Vote yes for the gas tax renewal.
Metro Homeless Services Tax, Measure 26-210: Vote Yes
Portland voters have cast two major votes in the past four years to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing projects across the region. The measures, Portland’s 2016 housing bond and Metro’s 2018 housing bond, went a long way to increase housing capacity for low-income and currently houseless residents. The nearly $1 billion in combined bonds created an estimated 5,300 permanently affordable homes in the Portland metro region.
What it didn’t do, however, is ensure that the people seeking this affordable housing have the support they need to remain housed.
The transition from homelessness to permanent housing isn’t easy. Navigating new bills, making healthy meals, finding a stable job, and maintaining your health can be overwhelming for new tenants accustomed to a different way of life. It’s not surprising, then, that many formerly homeless people end up back on the streets after moving into a rental without knowing how to navigate the foreign system.
Across the country, the most successful housing programs for recently-homeless renters fall under the “permanently supportive housing” category. Supportive housing is an umbrella term for a residential program that offers tenants whatever help they need to stay housed—whether that’s on-site addiction recovery help, childcare, job preparedness training, or case workers to connect them to other public services. In Portland, nonprofits like Transition Projects, Central City Concern, and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare offer permanent supportive housing—but their waiting lists are consistently full.
That’s where Metro’s homeless services measure comes in. The brainchild of numerous housing and homeless advocacy groups, the measure would use tax dollars to expand already-existing supporting housing programs in the region. The $250 million ballot measure proposes a pair of funding streams: A 1 percent tax on individuals living in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties making an annual salary of $125,000 (or $200,000 for couples), and a 1 percent tax on profits from businesses in the same region making more than $5 million annually.
The proposal has unprecedented support from all three county governments and local business communities (the usual antagonists of homeless programs). It’s only drawn opposition from Oregon’s top corporate lobbyists, whose main argument is that there are simply too many taxes in Oregon. As we write these endorsements, thousands of homeless Portlanders aren’t able to safely prevent the spread of COVID-19 by “staying home,” and hundreds more are teetering on the edge of losing their housing due to unexpected layoffs. The region’s homeless population will surely increase in the wake of COVID-19. It’s on us to offer our most vulnerable neighbors a path forward.